KYLE ORTON'Sbiggest adjustment since his arrival in Denver five months ago in the JayCutler trade hasn't been to learn a playbook that's thicker than Paula Deen'sSouthern twang. No, the former Bear's biggest adjustment has been to ignore thestopwatch in his head each time he drops back to pass.
In Chicago, Ortonsays, "we were a three-step passing team. If my first read wasn't there, Ihad to get rid of it." In Denver, where the Broncos have one of theleague's top tackle tandems in Ryan Clady on the left and Ryan Harris on theright, the pass protection is so good that Orton will have the chance to lookto his second and third reads and possibly come back to his primary receiver."Here, I've got so much time," he says. "It was hard for me to makethat change in my mind."
Orton may havemore time in the pocket this season, but his honeymoon with Denver fans couldbe brief. Many supporters are still upset about the team's decision to dealCutler. Although the Broncos received two first-round picks, a third-roundselection and Orton in the trade, to some it was essentially a straight-up swapof quarterbacks.
During one workoutearly in camp when Orton wasn't sharp, the boos were quick to come from anestimated crowd of 13,000. Imagine the response from the 76,000 at Invesco whenhe struggles during a game. There's also the matter of winning over teammateswho were close to Cutler. "We had a great quarterback—one of the top fivein the league," says sixth-year linebacker D.J. Williams. "[LosingCutler] set us back a little bit. I would love to see Jay here, but we've gotto work with the parts we've got now—and that's not to say they're not goodenough or can't get the job done. They can."
Quarterback isn'tthe only issue in Denver. The defense, which allowed the third-most points inthe league last year, is making the switch from a 4--3 scheme to a 3--4 withpersonnel not necessarily suited for the change. But insofar as the NFL is aquarterback-driven league, most of the scrutiny will be on Orton, afourth-round pick of the Bears in 2005. The biggest knock on him is that helacks the arm strength to stretch the field, although that wasn't apparentduring one practice, when he overthrew speedy Eddie Royal on a deep post.
"Perception inthis league is kind of comical," says Orton. "I can make every throw Iever need to make. We were in a running offense in Chicago that let the defensewin games. [My statistics] might not have been what some of the other guys wereputting up, but we won a lot of football games and did some goodthings."
First-year coachJosh McDaniels studied Orton extensively before bringing him in. What he sawwas a player who was 21--12 as a starter despite throwing nearly as manyinterceptions (25) as touchdown passes (27) and who won an NFC North title inone of his two seasons as a full-time No. 1. He also saw that Orton was strongin one critical area in which Cutler and the Broncos struggled last season:red-zone turnovers. During his career Orton has thrown 22 touchdowns and onlytwo interceptions inside the opponents' 20-yard line, while the Cutler-ledDenver offense tied for the league lead with seven red-zone turnovers (fourinterceptions, three fumbles) last season.
The Broncos alsosigned free agent Chris Simms, but even he knows Orton's status isunquestioned. "It was probably best that Coach named him the starter inJune," Simms says. "The feeling was, Let's get the focus on the teamand worry about getting better. They traded Jay Cutler for [Orton]. If they'dnamed me the starting quarterback, people would have been saying, 'What's goingon here?'"
And if Ortondoesn't prove that McDaniels was right in changing quarterbacks, that questionwill be spreading throughout Denver this season.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
0--0 in NFL, first season with Broncos
Denver suspendeddisgruntled star WR Brandon Marshall (104 rec., 1,265 yards, 6 TDs) duringcamp; Gaffney (broken thumb) could miss time early.
Rookie CB AlphonsoSmith will handle kickoff-return duties (22.0-yard average at Wake Forest in'08).
(R) Rookie: College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
Get the latest and best Broncos stories, statistics and fan blogs from acrossthe Web, handpicked by the editors of SI.
2008 RECORD 8--8
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 12 > 3 > 2
DEFENSE 27 > 26 > 29
13 at Cincinnati
27 at Oakland
11 NEW ENGLAND
19 at San Diego (M)
1 at Baltimore
9 PITTSBURGH (M)
15 at Washington
22 SAN DIEGO
26 N.Y. GIANTS (T)
6 at Kansas City
13 at Indianapolis
27 at Philadelphia
3 KANSAS CITY
NFL Rank: 19T
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .480
Games against playoff teams: 7
The Broncos' late collapse cost them the AFC West and gave them a second-placeschedule for '09, meaning they get New England and Indianapolis instead ofTennessee and Miami. You decide which is worse. Add in the Steelers, the Ravensand the NFC East, and new coach Josh McDaniels may be looking at the mostdaunting slate in the NFL, no matter what the numbers say.
Brian Dawkins, Free safety
IT WAS supposed to be Brian Dawkins's day. After sevenPro Bowl selections and 13 distinguished seasons with the Eagles, the freeagent was in Denver on Feb. 28 for a news conference to announce his signing.Yet the player on most people's minds was quarterback Jay Cutler, who had justdeclared that he was likely headed out of Denver. A little over a month laterthe Broncos did trade Cutler, and the team Dawkins had envisioned playing forwas suddenly changed. Would he have signed anyway? "Yes, yes, yes," hesays emphatically.
One reason is Champ Bailey, the three-time All-Procornerback. "I've always admired who he is and what he brings to thetable," says Dawkins. "The opportunity to play with him side by sidewas alluring."
After finishing in the bottom five in points allowed inthe past two seasons, the Broncos are counting on Dawkins to provide steadyingleadership off the field and hard hits and big plays on it. He missed the earlypart of camp with a broken right hand, but he believes he can be the sameplayer in Denver that he was with Philly, which finished in the top 10 indefense seven times during his tenure there. "I want to be a part of whatthey're trying to do here," he says. "Hopefully I'll bring something ina hurry so we'll have success right now."
KYLE TERADA/US PRESSWIRE
A WINNER The furor over Cutler's exit masks the fact that Orton (8) won 64% of his starts in Chicago.
ERIC LARS BAKKE